Broadway’s housing crunch

New shows have scripts, directors, casts & backers. All they need is an available home

The challenge ofsecuring a home in New York isn’t just something people sing about in “Rent.”

The 2006-07 Broadway season officially gets under way next week with the opening of “Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway” on Aug. 15 and “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me” on Aug. 17. There’s no shortage of new shows being readied to hit town, but the Rialto real-estate crunch once again promises to make it tough for producers who haven’t yet landed a theater.

Broadway houses of sufficient size that can sustain a musical with a large cast and elaborate sets are at a premium — long-haul players of a decade or more like “Phantom of the Opera,” “Rent,” “The Lion King” and “Chicago” have been joined by a younger crop of stayers like “The Producers,” “Mamma Mia!” “Avenue Q” and “Wicked.” Add to those such recent-season successes as “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” “Jersey Boys,” “The Color Purple” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” none of which appears to be going away soon, and you have a logjam with more product waiting in the wings than theaters to accommodate it.

The situation seems likely to promote a bloodbath climate in which producers and theater owners will be ready to pounce on new shows that fail to connect instantly with an audience and existing tuners starting to show box office vulnerability. Pundits also are wondering where plays will go as musicals increasingly snatch up drama houses.

“I have never seen a theater logjam like it is now,” says producer Roger Berlind. “It’s supposed to be a cycle, and it’s a trend that seems to be continuing. As these smaller houses book smaller musicals, it may make good economical sense, but the trend makes me very nervous.”

So where will the new season’s entries go?

Well, there’s the Eugene O’Neill, where “Sweeney Todd” will finish its run Sept. 3. Last week Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns the O’Neill, was hoping to close a deal for the theater in the near future; word has it that the Broadway transfer of the Atlantic Theater Company’s hit tuner “Spring Awakening” is the top candidate for the venue.

Producers looking for a vacancy are eyeing the Imperial, where ticket sales for “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” dropped as soon as a new cast took over in recent weeks. The upcoming tuner adaptation of Nick Hornby novel “High Fidelity,” about an obsessive music fan with a bumpy relationship record, is said to have its sights on that house for an anticipated December opening — although that show’s producers say officially that they don’t know yet in which Shubert theater they’ll likely land.

Others are keeping watch on the the Hirschfeld tenant, “The Wedding Singer,” which has picked up since its tepid opening but is still far from the hit its backers had hoped.

Insiders also expect the Helen Hayes may become available toward the holidays, given that nothing is booked into the theater beyond ventriloquism show “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only,” opening Sept. 28. And how long can “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” with its sluggish sales, hold out at the Lyceum?

There also has been talk of “Hairspray” losing its spritz at the Neil Simon. But that show’s grosses may prove sufficiently high enough to continue its run for a bit, and New Line clearly will push for the tuner to stick around until trailers for its December 2007 film version arrive to add fresh holding power.

Heading the lineup of new tuners scheduled for large houses is Disney’s London hit “Mary Poppins” at the New Amsterdam, an arrival that comes in the wake of some venue-juggling that saw previous New Amsterdam tenant “The Lion King” swapped out to the Minskoff — a theater whose layout allows the 10-year-old “King” to keep its grosses up to smash-hit levels despite having 200 fewer seats to sell for each perf.

With “Poppins,” which opens Nov. 16, the Mouse House legit division hopes to erase the critical beating it took on “Tarzan.” Show about a magical nanny could hardly be more quintessentially British, but the much-loved movie and series of children’s novels give it a high awareness factor.

Meanwhile, representing an odd twist in such a crowded market, the expansive Palace, with its prime location smack in the middle of Times Square, will sit empty for almost an entire year following the swift demise in the spring of vampire tuner “Lestat,” while waiting for the musical adaptation of “Legally Blonde” to sashay into the theater in April.

It could seem crazy to let such a valuable patch of real estate languish for so long, but in so doing, the Nederlanders, who not only own the Palace but are also producers of “Blonde,” can at least ensure that their producing venture will have a home in an increasingly competitive environment.

Over at the Hilton, which opened up with the demise of “Hot Feet” July 23, two productions have rushed in to fill the void.

Live musical version of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” takes advantage of a serendipitously timed opening on the Rialto to schedule the seasonal offering for a limited run from October through January.

After that comes “The Pirate Queen,” the new show from the “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon” composing team Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg that chronicles the exploits of a distaff pirate in 16th century Ireland. “Queen” tries out in Chicago in the fall before it docks at the Hilton next year.

All this activity leaves a few circling tuners without homes, at least for the moment.

Kander and Ebb’s detective tuner “Curtains” could follow “Drowsy Chaperone” as the next show to travel east from Los Angeles’ Center Theater Group, but it’s too soon to say where it could go.

Kid-lit adaptation “Princesses” also has been angling for a Broadway berth, and the Des McAnuff-helmed La Jolla Playhouse revival of “The Wiz” in the fall seems another strong candidate. But momentum behind those shows will depend in large part on suitable digs becoming available.

If it does travel to New York, the 1975 black update of “The Wizard of Oz” will join tuner revivals “Les Miz” (opening at the Broadhurst Nov. 9) and “A Chorus Line” (Schoenfeld, Oct. 5) as well as Sondheim’s “Company” (Barrymore in November), in which Brit director John Doyle will attempt to repeat the successful actor-musician double act of his “Sweeney Todd.”

Some new musicals have solved the housing crunch by taking over smaller theaters that usually host plays.

Take, for instance, Twyla Tharp’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which bows Oct. 26 at the intimate Brooks Atkinson. The circus-themed dance musical, based on the songs of Bob Dylan, had a mixed reception in its premiere run at San Diego’s Old Globe, but as Tharp demonstrated with “Movin’ Out,” her ability to turn a problematic show into a hit is not to be underestimated.

Then there’s “Grey Gardens,” the culty Off Broadway hit that drew love letters from critics for Christine Ebersole’s dual-role turn as eccentric mother-daughter duo Edith and Little Edie Bouvier Beale. That show also has nabbed a playhouse, the Walter Kerr, where it opens Nov. 2.

But with so many sites taken, where will upcoming plays go?

That’s a good question for productions such as David Hare’s new drama, “The Vertical Hour,” which stars Julianne Moore as an American war correspondent-turned-academic and is scheduled to open Nov. 30 at a Shubert theater to be announced. Ditto Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Starry Messenger,” with Matthew Broderick, which will aim for an unspecified Rialto berth following its premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe in the winter.

Leading the field of incoming Broadway plays in size and scope is Tom Stoppard’s epic Russian historical trilogy “The Coast of Utopia,” which gets a home at Lincoln Center now that “The Light in the Piazza” has wrapped up the extended run that had displaced last season’s LCT offerings to other Broadway houses. Jack O’Brien’s staging corrals a large ensemble cast that includes Billy Crudup, Jennifer Ehle, Ethan Hawke, Brian F. O’Byrne and Martha Plimpton; first part of the epic bows Nov. 5 at the Vivian Beaumont.

In the current logjam, it helps to have, as LCT does, a permanent Broadway outpost. Manhattan Theater Company opens its season Oct. 12 at the Biltmore with Simon Mendes Da Costa’s “Losing Louie,” about two generations of family members 50 years apart, and due in spring is Roundabout’s “110 in the Shade,” the 1963 musical based on “The Rainmaker,” starring Audra McDonald.

Factor in the Broadway transfer of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed,” tipped for the Cort in November; the revival of Simon Gray’s academia comedy “Butley,” which opens Oct. 26 at the Booth and stars Nathan Lane; George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” from the Roundabout, bowing Oct. 11 at the American Airlines; and MTC’s spring staging at the Biltmore of Brian Friel’s “Translations,” and you have a season that already looks jammed before it even gets started.

— Gordon Cox in New York and Phil Gallo in Hollywood contributed to this report.

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